a curious Yankee in Europe's court

blog about living in Europe, and Italy

Books I read: “Somebody Else’s Century…” (Patrick Smith)

Posted on the February 20th, 2012

“Somebody Else’s Century/East and West in a Post-Western World” by Patrick Smith (2010)


Why did I choose this book?

I wanted to learn more about Asia, something beyond the usual news articles and television programs that only focus on politics and financial news. From such narrow reporting, it isn’t possible to have more than a vague idea about the countries and people and cultures in Asia.

I didn’t even know precisely which countries are East and why. I wanted to learn more about the distinctions between the Japanese, Chinese and Korean people.

And a blurb on the back cover of the book also sparked interest:

This thoughtful and highly original meditation on the future of Asian societies should be required reading for anyone interested in where our planet is heading. (Chalmers Johnson)

Finally, it was the credibility of the author. Patrick Smith is a journalist who has been a foreign correspondent in Asia since 1981.

Did I learn what I hoped to learn?

Yes, and much much more. The depth and detail of reporting in this book transformed my views of Asia. An unexpected reaction was the anger I felt that our traditional news media does not offer such comprehensive reporting in its daily coverage.  Smith brilliantly demonstrates what a journalist can do if given the chance.

Choosing a perspective from the inside out, Smith writes about the complex reasons a defeated and humiliated Japan (post-World War II) embraced and imitated the priorities and culture of those who conquered it. He traces the historical relationship between China and Japan. He discusses the attitudes of the people in each toward each other. And Smith analyzes a crucial aspect of India and its people that makes the country and culture markedly different from China and Japan.

Most interestingly, he reviews the arbitrary line that divides East from West, questioning exactly what it is and whether it has any validity. Excerpt:

Herodotus concluded that the business of East and West was ‘imaginary.’ The line he referred to was drawn by humans. For a long time we have simply lost track of this. We have erred in thinking the divide is eternal — ever there, ever to be there, somehow (and somewhere) etched into the earth. Now we enter a time when we can see from another perspective and see the truth of things and of ourselves.

Favorite quote from the book:

“The past is made of every moment up to the one we live in, the moment we know as ‘now.’ Each speck of our past is part of what makes us who we are… We honor tradition only when we add to it. The rest is mere convention, unalive.”

Who wrote this book?

Patrick Smith is an American journalist who has written for major publications including the International Herald Tribune, The New Yorker, The Nation, Business Week, and The Economist.  He is also the author of the award-winning book, “The Nippon Challenge and Japan: A Reinterpretation.”


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Whose century (or something) is it anyway?

Posted on the September 21st, 2010

One last glance back at the World Economic Forum panel discussion last week that I wrote a couple of posts about. This time I want to highlight some interesting wordplay there.

The minor verbal tussle sprang from reaction to the title of the panel discussion — “America in the Asian Century.”

First comment came from panel host Steve Clemons who opined that, for various reasons, he prefers to think of it as “America, China, Europe in a really, really messy century.”

Soon after Professor Moon Chung-In from Korea argued, instead, that it will be an “American-Asian century.” And then later, another panel member predicted that it would be, rather, a global century.

This all came back to mind this morning while I was reading yesterday’s Huffington Post blog post by Michael Brenner. He rather acerbically quoted US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declaring earlier this month that we are at another American moment. (Video below)

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A Japanese politician candidly explains his country’s woes: Taro Kono

Posted on the September 17th, 2010

Continuing the conversation of my post yesterday about the World Economic Forum meeting underway that is exploring the idea of this being an Asian century, I want to pluck out and highight some comments by Taro Kono, a Japanese parliamentarian. They were especially notable.

In his opening remarks, Kono smiled wryly and acknowledged:

We are actually choosing the third prime minister in one year today in Japan.

When host Steve Clemons noted that this brings the number to about six prime ministers in five years, Tono nodded and responded:

We’ve got to stop that to remain a certain power in Asia.

Kono then went on to talk about the political divide that has developed between Japan and the US on some major policies. He said that the US needs to do three things. One is to take care of the deficit, he noted (again with that wry smile as he added that Japan needs to mind its own deficit as well). Two, Kono said, the US needs to show it has common values with Japan.

And, three…

“They have to keep the door open to immigrants…”

As soon as the Q&A session opened, the very first question came from a Russian expert. He opined that he found it a bit rich (paraphrasing) for  someone from Japan to lecture others on open immigration policy, considering that Japan “is one of the most closed countries in terms of immigration policies.” A fair amount of friendly laughter greeted this apt query.

Kono, ever with the wry smile, responded so:

“I don’t see any other alternative for Japan’s future but to open up the country to the immigration. As you say, Japan is the most closed country so far but we’re losing population fast. The society is aging. We cannot sustain our pension system or social security. So we have to open up.

What is the core value of Japan? Japan is a country where people speak the Japanese language, and Japan is a country which has the emperor, and those two are the core values for Japan, and anything else has to change in the 21st century. So we are going to be opening up. Not only to the immigrants but our economy as well.

I  can’t remember ever hearing a politician make such a sweeping admission about the state of his country — Japan is a country where people speak the Japanese language, and Japan is a country which has the emperor and those two are the core values for Japan, and anything else has to change in the 21st century.

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America’s dismal future? China’s rise?

Posted on the September 16th, 2010

One of the most interesting and puzzling findings, for me, of the New Transaltantic Trends survey just released are the widely divergent transatlantic views of Americans and Europeans on the rise of Asia:

EU and U.S. respondents were divided about the role Asia would play in global affairs. Seven-in-ten respondents (71%) in America found it very likely that China will exert strong leadership in the future, while only a third of Europeans (34%) thought the same scenario is very likely.

That’s a gigantic perception gap between the two groups. Why? Haven’t a clue.

Still puzzling over this divide, I came across a video of a panel discussion yesterday at the World Economic Forum meeting now underway in Tianjin, China. Hosted by Steve Clemons, the panel discussion was titled “America in the Asian Century.”  The panel members included public figure heavyweights:

Cui Liru, President, Chinese Institutes of Contemporary International Relations; Thomas L. Friedman, Columnist, The New York Times; Taro Kono, Acting Secretary-General, Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), Japan; Moon Chung-In, Professor of Political Science, Yonsei University, Korea; Charles E. Morrison, President, East-West Centre, USA; and Kurt Tong, Senior Official to Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, US Department of State.

Highly recommended watching!  Unless you’re already an expert on the subject, the discussion is illuminating and thought-provoking.

Just a couple of quotes (many to choose from), this first one from Professor Moon Chung-In, of Korea:

We are trapped in a kind of cognitive dissonance between old inertia and new reality. We all know American power is declining, okay, yet we try and recognize America as a continuing power, shaping everything in this part of the world…

And from host Steve Clemons:

One of the challenges for the United States is that to much of the rest of the world, it looks like the General Motors of nations. It’s big, it has a ton of assets, you always hear America has all these bases, this power, this capacity.

But when it comes to where it’s anticipated to be 20 years from now, it looks like GM. China has looked like the Google of countries. In other words, power is based on future expectation, much like the stock market…

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